The food and drink supply chain faced enormous pressure during the Covid-19 crisis—from initial shortages of basic grocery items due to consumer stockpiling to rapidly changing purchasing patterns aimed at reducing social contact. As the industry responded to the crisis, bars and restaurants closed or limited their services and consumers adapted to cost and availability challenges by modifying their choices in a variety of ways.
Hunter PR reported a recent resurgence in home cooking, with 54% of Americans cooking more than they did pre-Covid-19 and more than a third discovering new ingredients and products outside of their loyalties to well-established brands. An article published by Eater suggested that more food—whether fresh, frozen or processed—was being sold directly to consumers rather than to restaurants, affecting the type and size of packaging. More customers shopped online or opted for curbside pickup, according to a survey by Disqo.
As a result, the industry needed to adapt quickly in order to predict and meet fast changes in demand and behavior. Here, we explore how the future of 5G networks could do even more to innovate the industry and allow for more streamlined and nimble processes—enabling better insight and control of products along their journey, helping to improve food safety and more.
Boosting Automation For More Flexibility And Efficiency
Some parts of the industry are still manually intensive. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the food manufacturing industry employed around 1.6 million people in the second quarter of 2020, although unemployment has predictably increased.
Increasing the level of automation is key to making the food manufacturing process and supply chain more flexible and responsive to the latest changes in demand. Operational efficiency and cost reductions are industry lifelines. In fact, McKinsey found that the food processing and handling equipment sector grew more rapidly than almost any industrial market through 2018, providing the processing systems and equipment that enable the industry to manage food products’ journey from the farm via the factory to the consumer. Incorporating 5G could take this control to a whole new level, and at the same time could potentially provide greater quality and safety measures.
Improved Traceability For Safety And Quality Control
In 2019, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced its development of a “Strategic Blueprint” outlining plans to use technology to “create a more digital, traceable and safer food system,” including leveraging the Internet of Things (IoT) and artificial intelligence (AI). The blueprint builds on the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), which mandated controls on food allergens, sanitation and other controls, in addition to process control of parameters such as product formulation and temperature during manufacturing operations.
The FDA was just days away from releasing the blueprint in March 2020 when the Covid-19 pandemic hit America, and it has now been revised to take account of lessons learned during the crisis. Traceability, used in tandem with AI tools, could provide greater supply chain visibility, thus helping the industry predict the kind of imbalances that can cause shortages of certain provisions. It could also help prevent food waste by diverting deliveries to where they are most needed—offering the potential for a more agile and resilient system.
5G Along The Food Journey
So how can the future of 5G revolutionize the manufacturing and distribution of food and beverages, and also work to help improve food safety and traceability? It could provide a medium for integrated data collection and control, beginning with smart tags assigned at the farm that would store all the relevant data about produce, for example. Information such as harvest date, the identity and history of an animal used for meat and so on could be included and tracked. Sensors in the truck could then relay logistics information over a nationwide 5G network, noting departure times, anticipated arrival at the factory, onboard temperature and humidity and more, all of which would be saved to the data records of that particular batch of ingredients. If problems emerge down the line, products could be traced back to their exact source and time of dispatch.
In the factory, imagine a future where ingredients could be assessed for quality and compliance, weighed out and delivered to the production line at the exact time they’re needed using autonomous guided vehicles or the more intelligent robotic self-driving vehicles. These fully automated robotic factories would use systems of sensors to ensure that the appropriate weights, volumes and types of ingredients are delivered at the right time to the correct production line, and then processed, packaged and labeled correctly. Throughout the process, a 5G-enabled cloud-based control system could continue to log parameters of every ingredient in every batch of the product, documenting all the key process data and preserving traceability.
For lines producing different types of items or different variants for particular customers, the emerging 5G IoT system could simultaneously change the recipe and the ingredients reaching the line to switch instantaneously to the new product without significant delay or waste.
5G Could Enhance Possibilities For Consumers
With the 5G era, we can imagine more possibilities when the food leaves the factory. Whether products are destined for a wholesaler or a supermarket, a restaurant chain or an assembler of recipe boxes, they would again be tracked and logged along the journey. And if shortages are detected in certain areas, developing 5G technologies could support rapid redirecting.
Customers themselves could benefit, not only in terms of food quality and safety because of the improved traceability, but also from entirely new, customizable delivery options.
5G could mean a future of seemingly unlimited options, precise customization and unprecedented ease for customers in the food and beverage industry: A recipe box ordered online tailored precisely to meet a family’s diverse dietary requirements. Grocery deliveries picked and packed entirely without human intervention. 5G-enabled vending machines, stocked automatically by robots, that never run out of any options. Automatic order fulfillment in fast food restaurants and drive-thrus, and contactless delivery app services.
All of these advancements could one day become possible with a 5G-managed food supply chain.
To learn more about innovative use cases powered by future 5G networks, visit t-mobile.com/business/trends-and-insights.